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A Master's Degree in Astronomy

Paul Kohlmiller


Is it worth the time and money? You never know what happens.



On October 22nd it became official. I now have a Masters Degree in Astronomy. Is it worth it? Now what? Four days later my son turned the same age that I was when he was born. How did that happen? I’ll hold those questions for later.

The idea of getting a Master’s Degree started when I heard that Marni Berendsen from the ASP had done so. I did some research and found that there were a very small number of universities that offered real programs that led to a Masters Degree in Astronomy that could be taken online. Notice how that word “online” seems to discount the entire idea. I get a steady stream of spam that includes subject lines like “get your degree without the work” or “call now for your degree” or “get your degree now”. These come-ons are just the Internet versions of the “paper mills” that have been around for a while.

The Master’s Degree at Swinburne University (Melbourne, Australia) is no paper mill. I took one or two classes per semester for 4.5 years, a total of 12 classes. I wrote an article for the Ephemeris when I was half done. See

The classes that I took all had the same structure. For each class there was a set of PowerPoint slides or PDF pages. For example, when I took the course “Exploring the Galaxies and the Cosmos”, there were 37 PowerPoint files with about 50 slides in each.

There were also assigned readings usually from one textbook per class. Some of the books were relatively inexpensive but some were very serious textbooks at very serious prices. I probably averaged around $100 in books per class but that included some secondary texts. I must admit that I didn’t do all of the readings but that’s been my history as a student all my life. Those of you who remember the Advanced Placement classes in high school will also recall not seeing me in them.

For each class there was an e-mail newsgroup that was managed through a system called Blackboard. This system drove me crazy at times but it is workable. You were required to make two e-mail posts in every two week section of the class (classes are 12 weeks long). One e-mail should be a question and one an answer to someone else’s question. Of course, most students do a lot more than that. Each two week section would end up with 100-300 e-mails – a lot to read when the missives are often technical and long. The reason that some are long is that this is part of your grade. In particular, three of your epistles are chosen (by you) for extra consideration.

You have to write two papers per class. The first is limited to 2000 words and you dare not exceed that. You can choose from a list of 3-5 topics in most classes. These papers are expected to be scientifically literate and well-researched (meaning something other than Wikipedia). The second paper is 10-12 pages long and you work with a project supervisor (not the class instructor) to develop an outline, get some ideas for research, find the particular angle you are going to use, and to just generally help you on the project. My experience is that the interest level and enthusiasm of the project supervisor varies greatly but you have little control over this. In the current schedule at Swinburne, you complete the project two weeks after the 12 week class has ended.

Besides the papers, the slides, the readings and the e-mails, there are two tests. These tests are open book of course, it would be difficult to do anything different online. But these tests can be difficult regardless and some instructors try for “gotcha” questions. In one test during a class on astrophotography I answered a question in terms of an astrophotographer but the question only said “observing”, not implying photography at all. Ya got me!

For most amateur astronomers that I know, the first 3 classes at Swinburne will be a breeze. Every class has its black belts and its white belts and you will be a black belt for a while. The later classes on relativity, particle physics, radio astronomy, and astrophotography may be quite challenging if you are not familiar with these topics. Classes on the history of astronomy and astrobiology will be great if you have interests in those areas. The good thing about Swinburne is that you can choose your 12 classes from a list of 17. Not all classes are taught each semester and some classes have to be taken in a specified order.

Now for the delayed questions. Is it worth it? That’s hard to say. There will be some nights where you will be writing papers, taking tests, or reading e-mail when you would rather be outside actually doing some astronomy. Each class costs about $900 with the current exchange rate and that comes out to $1000 per class with books. You should strongly consider a better Internet connection if you are still using dial-up. I didn’t do this program expecting to get reimbursed in a financial way. But you never know what happens.

Now what? There are rumors about an online Ph.D. program but nothing seems to happen. The one criticism of this program that I hear is that the student is not ready for independent research, i.e. writing a defensible thesis that adds new knowledge to the science. I’m not sure that critique is valid. I think someone who has gone through this program could take on research if given access to data and provided with direction. It is not necessary to obtain time for Hubble observations or something like that. I think the hard part would be to find an area where no astronomer has gone before. Most of the projects that I did in this program covered well trod territory but a couple of projects might have been starting points for a thesis.

However, I did give a 10 minute presentation at the last ASP conference and proudly put “M.S.” after my name on the opening slide. And the supervisor for my last project (the noted astronomer Pamela Gay who gave me a great grade by the way) was sitting in the front row. Is that cool or what!

As to how did I get to be this age, that’s probably just dumb luck.


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